What Do Genetics Nurses Do?
By Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN
Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN is a nurse writer and educator with over 25 years of experience. She has been certified in five different clinical specialties including critical care and emergency nursing. Starting as an associate degree registered nurse, she continued her schooling in traditional and distance-learning settings to obtain a BSN, MSN, and PhD in nursing while working full-time and raising a family. Lorry teaches nursing in a variety of settings including webinars and online nursing courses.
The specialty practice of genetics nursing developed from recent advances in our knowledge of the genetic component of many medical and psychiatric health conditions. Genetics nurses apply an understanding of this field to the care of patients and their families at risk for or affected by a genetic disease.
What to Expect as a Genetics Nurse
Until recently, the genetic causes of many conditions were unknown. Once the genetic components of such diseases as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s were identified, patients began to need assistance interpreting this information and making treatment decisions.
Genetics nurses help patients and their families by taking detailed family histories and assessing hereditary and nonhereditary risk factors for particular genetic conditions. They provide consultation and support to genetics physicians and manage the care of their patients.
Genetic Nursing Duties
Genetics nurses must be adept at interpreting and explaining highly specialized information to their patient population. This requires solid communication and teaching skills along with advanced education in biomedical sciences.
For example, a genetics nurse working in a pediatric specialty clinic may provide genetic education about cystic fibrosis to a couple whose child was recently diagnosed with the condition. The nurse would obtain a detailed family history and provide information about risks and benefits of genetic testing. Usually, these situations are emotionally charged and the patient may have trouble understanding the complex information related. Genetics nurses must be patient and empathetic during these interactions. Life-changing decisions will be made based on the information shared.
How to Get Started as a Genetic Nurse
Although many current genetics nurses developed their careers through on-the-job training, most nurses currently interested in entering the specialty will need advanced training in the field. First, determine the patient population of interest. For example, genetics nurses work in prenatal programs, pediatric clinics, research centers and cancer institutes. Once a practice area is determined, contact the human resources professionals at several local work sites to discover their background requirements for your preferred position. It may be helpful to secure a generalist position within your chosen facility to develop your skill base. As a benefit, some facilities may provide tuition reimbursement for the genetics training you would need to advance to a specialty position.
- International Society of Nurses in Genetics
- American Society of Human Genetics
- Genetic Nursing Credentialing Commission
- National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics
- World News: Genetics Council
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Genomics
- National Human Genome Research Institute (the health professionals page–and see notes)